COVID-19 sickened or killed more than 375 million people globally by early 2022, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but its impact goes beyond that striking figure.
The effects of the pandemic touch nearly every facet of society in the United States and abroad, including overall health, the economy, and human behavior. Social analysis reveals that the impact of COVID-19 has been especially pronounced for already vulnerable groups — including people living in poverty, older individuals, people with disabilities, and ethnic minorities.
Impact of COVID-19 on Health
The initial impact of COVID-19 on individuals who contract it can be serious. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from the illness in the U.S. Older people, the unvaccinated, and those with chronic health conditions and weakened immune systems face the greatest risk, and marginalized populations have experienced a higher rate of poor outcomes.
But the pandemic’s implications for health go beyond COVID-19’s initial symptoms to encompass a longer time period and other health conditions.
Health Implications for COVID-19 Patients
The most common symptoms of COVID-19 — fever, cough, fatigue, and loss of taste or smell — typically dissipate after about four weeks. But for those hospitalized after being diagnosed with the virus, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported in 2021, about 9% are readmitted to the hospital within five days of discharge.
Additionally, COVID-19 “long-haulers,” as the Mayo Clinic describes them, can continue to struggle with a host of symptoms, from cough to concentration problems. A 2021 report in PLOS Medicine showed that about a third of the American COVID-19 patients studied had long-term health effects.
The pandemic has lowered life expectancy for Americans overall by a year, according to a report of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). For the Black population, life expectancy decreased by two years, and for Latinos, it decreased by three years.
The United Nations reports that vulnerable populations face steeper challenges in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization cites the example of people experiencing homelessness, noting their inability to take protective measures against the illness.
COVID-19 Implications for Other Health Concerns
The health impact of COVID-19 goes beyond those who contract the illness. The 2021 HHS report describes the impact of COVID-19’s symptoms as four waves: The first wave represents the initial illness for those who contract it, and subsequent waves relate to long-term recovery, health challenges stemming from delays in care, and trauma and mental health concerns.
Emergency department visits for non-coronavirus-related concerns were down significantly in many parts of the U.S. during early stages of the pandemic, as individuals sought to avoid exposure to the virus and adhere to community mitigation measures, HHS reports. Many people postponed in-person medical office visits or elective procedures for the same reasons. With high rates of job loss, especially early in the pandemic, many couldn’t afford healthcare — leading to more delayed medical visits.
The decline in the number of in-person ER visits and elective procedures reduced revenue at many medical facilities, HHS reports, leading to layoffs in a professional field already experiencing shortages.
Additionally, people who put off treatment were vulnerable to disease progression, infection risk, increased complexity of treatment, and increased recovery times. When individuals did visit the emergency room, for example, often their conditions had become so severe as to put them at greater risk of complications or death. In fact, according to a 2021 Epic Research study, emergency department visits that led to hospitalization increased 55% above the expected rate during the month after COVID-19 became a national emergency in March 2020.
Impact of COVID-19 on the Economy
Social analysis of the pandemic’s economic impact shows sudden turmoil that yielded long-term changes to everything from how companies do business to what employees expect from their jobs. But the financial impact differed according to types of industries and populations of people.
Brookings reports that, at the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, more than 90% of the global economy’s gross domestic product contracted because of supply and demand disruptions. As the U.S. struggled through a recession, 115 million people lost their jobs or saw their work hours reduced between March 2020 and February 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In comparison, 30 million people lost their jobs or experienced a reduction in work hours in 2017.
By 2021, the U.S. economy was rebounding, but effects lingered or worsened in some sectors, leading to what economists call a K-shaped recovery. The long-term impacts of this type of recovery include:
- Continuing unemployment among low-income workers
- Increasing racial wealth gap
- Rising wealth inequality
- Growing corporate monopolies
Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Different Job Sectors
With restrictions on in-person activities and traveling, the travel and hospitality sectors took a big hit in the COVID-19 economy. The U.S. Travel Association reports that travel spending declined by 42% in 2020, for example.
Those same restrictions, however, proved a boon for other fields — particularly those related to technology, whose dominance strengthened as people relied on electronic tools to interact with others and conduct business. The top five tech companies already comprised 17.5% of the S&P 500 heading into the pandemic, according to CNBC. By July 2021, Barron’s reported, they accounted for 23%.
The demand for workers in some sectors has outpaced that in others. Meanwhile, many who left the workforce during coronavirus-related disruptions did not return, thanks to concerns such as health, work-life balance, and child care.
Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Different Populations
Low-income employees — many of whom worked in the hardest-hit job sectors — felt the greatest effect in the initial crush of the pandemic-induced economic downturn, and the effects were longer lasting.
For example, according to the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, by June 2021, employment for people earning $60,000 or more a year had increased by 9.6% compared with February 2020. For those whose income was below $27,000 a year, employment during that period had decreased by 21%. Among the factors driving this discrepancy is the inability of many low-income employees to do their jobs remotely.
People of color also were at risk of more deeply experiencing the effects of the pandemic-related economic downturn, with existing inequalities becoming more pronounced as they navigated challenges such as job loss and unexpected expenses.
Impact of COVID-19 on Human Behavior
From how people interact to how they cope with stress, behaviors changed during the coronavirus pandemic, social analysis reveals. Some short-term impacts, such as isolation during lockdowns, led to longer-term problems, such as increases in crime and substance abuse.
Social distancing and stay-at-home measures affected how people perceive and relate to others. As friends, families, students, and employees gathered only through technology, many suffered the effects of separation from loved ones, loss of freedom, and concern about their safety.
A 2020 Frontiers in Psychology research article shows children and young adults were particularly at risk for stress and anxiety, as were healthcare workers, who were most likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder. In an October 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association, about two-thirds of U.S. adults reported increased stress because of the pandemic.
Drug and Alcohol Use
Researchers found an increase in substance abuse and drug overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Center for Health Statistics, for example, indicates that drug overdose deaths increased by 27% between April 2020 and April 2021, likely due to the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19. And a 2020 Psychiatry Research piece shows an increase in dangerous alcohol consumption among 1,000 people surveyed nationwide, from 21% engaging in this behavior to 40% between April and September 2020.
While property crime and drug offense rates fell between 2019 and 2020, according to the Council on Criminal Justice, homicide rates increased by 42% between June and August of 2020 — a spike that may be due to increased stress and a change in routines.
The organization also notes that the pandemic may have exacerbated existing racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system; as jail populations began to drop at the start of the pandemic, the proportion of inmates who were Black, male, and 25 or younger increased. This scenario continued even as jail populations rose in May 2020.
Take a Brave Step Toward Addressing COVID-19’s Social Challenges
Individuals with a passion for social change can use their talents to address the far-ranging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re ready to take the brave leap toward making a difference in your community, start your journey with Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. The program covers current events and social challenges, such as COVID-19, with concentrations in social work, social justice, and criminology — and the flexibility and convenience of online courses.
Discover how Maryville’s online Bachelor of Arts in Sociology can help you pursue your professional goals.
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American Psychological Association, “Stress in America 2020”
Barron’s, “Big 5 Tech Stocks Now Account for 23% of the S&P 500”
Brookings, “Social and Economic Impact of COVID-19”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID Data Tracker
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Emergency Department Visits — United States, January 1, 2019-May 30, 2020”
Center for American Progress, “The Economic Fallout of the Coronavirus for People of Color”
CNBC, “The Five Biggest Tech Companies Now Make Up 17.5% of the S&P 500 — Here’s How to Protect Yourself”
CNN Business, “Millions of Jobs and a Shortage of Applicants. Welcome to the New Economy”
Council on Criminal Justice, “Experience to Action: Reshaping Criminal Justice After COVID-19”
Epic Research, “Fewer Visits, Sicker Patients: The Changing Character of Emergency Department Visits During the COVID-19 Pandemic”
Frontiers in Psychology, “The Psychological and Social Impact of COVID-19: New Perspectives of Wellbeing”
Investopedia, “Long-Term Impacts of the COVID-19 K-Shaped Recovery”
Mayo Clinic, “COVID-19 (Coronavirus): Long-Term Effects”
National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics Rapid Release, Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts
National Institute on Drug Abuse, “COVID-19 and Substance Use”
Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, Recession Has Ended for High-Wage Workers, Job Losses Persist for Low-Wage Workers
PLOS Medicine, “Incidence, Co-Occurrence, and Evolution of Long-COVID Features: A 6-Month Retrospective Cohort Study of 273,618 Survivors of COVID-19”
Psychiatry Research, “Alcohol Dependence During COVID-19 Lockdowns”
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Reductions in 2020 U.S. Life Expectancy Due to COVID-19 and the Disproportionate Impact on the Black and Latino Populations”
Recovering Civility During COVID-19, “The Human, Economic, Social, and Political Costs of COVID-19”
United Nations, “Everyone Included: Social Impact of COVID-19”
U.S. Census Bureau, “Putting Economic Impact of Pandemic in Context”
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “COVID-19 Healthcare Delivery Impacts”
U.S. Travel Association, COVID-19 Travel Industry Research
World Health Organization, WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard